Of all professional games, perhaps the NBA all-star show is closest to pure play, rather than work.

It is a spectacle designed to appeal to the child -- the free-form, reckless, improvisational child -- in everyone.

Yesterday at Capital Centre, a kid's game was elevated to its most splendidly immature level. For nearly three hours, style preempted substance and art scored one of its infrequent triumphs over reality.

As might be expected, the children in the Centre understood this temporary world of fantasy and fairy tale best.

"There were times when I didn't even know what the score was or which team was ahead," 14-year-old Eric Jaffe of Rockville said. "The play is the thing."

Or, as another child put it -- a 50-year-old child named Bob Cousy: "This is an afternoon of poetic license. You watch this game with an extra dimension of expectation."

The common denominator of the crowd of 19,035 was a communal childlike sense of wonder. From the opening tip to the final buzzer of the East's 144-136 overtime win, thousands of people gazed at the court with rapt attention, like youngsters getting their first glimpse of Oz.

"What do I like best?" asked Ben Jaffe, 16, brother of Eric, with genuine disbelief "Why, everything. Everything they do. You just keep looking at them and you can't believe what they do."

The NBA All-Star Game is a three-ring circus in which none of the acrobats, high-wire artists and lion tamers have any idea what is going to happen next.

"This game is a departure from the structural pressure of the rest of the season," said Cousy, who played in the first All-Star Game in 1951 and is, unquestionably, the father of the basketball-as-art style of play.

"If you overstructure talented people, you inhibit them," Cousy said. "But if you give them free rein, then they can actually play above their talent at times.

"It's true that this game has an element of fantasy about it. It's like a Walt Disney film. You want to take your kids."

No Washington Bullet game would ever draw half so many youngsters as yesterday's affair.

"I wouldn't miss this for anything," 10-year-old Brett Ingerman of Pikesville, Md., said. "I was sick with the flu yesterday, but there was no way I'd stay home today."

"I just gave him antibotic," said Brett's father Bruce, a lawyer in Baltimore. "The All-Star Game only comes to town once every 22 years. I saw the one in Baltimore in 1969 and I didn't want Brett to miss this one."

Brett Ingerman's favorite book is "Pro Players of the NBA." His favorite player is Magic Johnson. And he has a small indoor basket from Montgomery Ward in which, he says, "I can dunk a lot."

Soon, says his father, a 10-foot high rim will be constructed in the back yard. "Basketball is just a tradition you hand down, something you share."

"Maybe," young Brett said, sniffling significantly, "I'll get to stay home from school sick tomorrow, I hope."

This is a game for fathers and sons -- a special, one-time-only extravaganza at $12 to $17 a ticket.

Don't look for school or church groups, or any large gathering of kids at an All-Star Game. It's an afternoon ganza at $12 to $17 a ticket.

"I went to the NBA banquet Saturday night," said one Washington attorney with his son, Tim, in tow. "I'd have taken my boy with me, but I couldn't believe anybody else would be crazy enough to pay $75 a plate to take a 10-year-old to a banquet.

"I regret it now. There must have been 100 kids there."

This was also an afternoon for generational lore, as dads could tell of their own exploits.

"I played against Bob Cousy in high school in the PSAL in New York," Herb Bodell of Fairfax said to his sprouting son, Paul. "I went to Grover Cleveland High and he went to Bayside. I guarded him every year. He never scored more than 15 points off me in any game."

Bodell, however, judiciously neglected to mention that when he graduated in '47 that 15 points were equivalent to 30 or more now.

"What I like," Paul Bodell said, "is that they come out so loose."

That looseness, unfortunately, is strictly a blessing of youth. No game exacts a greater price with age. At halftime, Cousy and a dozen of his contemporaries from All-Star games past ran on the court for a shooting exhibition.

Standing in a ramp during the first half, those children of other decades -- Dolph Schayes, George Mikan, Oscar Robertson, Willis Reed -- stood on tiptoes to watch the fleeting heroics on the Centre stage.

"Good Lord, who was that?" asked Schayes, seeing a flash of Moses Malone rising far above the rim for a rebound at the other end of the court. "He's incredible."

Sam Jones wheedled his way to courtside -- to take photographs, elbow-to-elbow with 12-year-olds and their cameras.

Gray hair and looks of undisguised longing showed in these familiar faces, those princes now spending a lifetime in the exile of leisure.

"When we go out," Bill Sharman, asked "do we have to take off our warmups."

Paunches were patted; nervous laughs were exchanged. A basket, no matter how beautiful, only counts once. And fame is written on water.

But, on some rare cases, once may be enough. The gentlemen of the 30th All-Star Game tried to do their best to leave a mood of respectful silence behind there.

"This game was like watching a ballet performed by giants," said Jack Jaffe, a general contractor and father of three young fans. "It seems impossible that they can hang in the air so long or that they can play together so instinctively without ever practicing together. There's no game that has as much continuous action as the NBA. This All-Star Game may be the ultimate action spectacle in all of team sports."

In a world of fairy tales, heroes often are known by only one name: Lancelot, Cinderella, or Hansel and Gretel.

So, in overtime yesterday, the East turned to those flying figures of fantasy who need only one name to identify them within their universe -- Ice, Moses, Bird, Doc, Tiny and E.

They used their poetic license well, creating a lyric afternoon that any child could understand.